Thursday, February 24, 2005

Tear Down Those Walls
Something pretty wonderful and profound is happening, and in a place where it's not supposed to happen: the Mideast. That something is democracy.

Reading the newspapers or watching network TV these days can be depressing, even dispiriting. Headlines and news stories about Iraq are filled with the perils of democracy — how fragile it is, and how disappointing. Little else of note gets said.

A headline in Wednesday's Los Angeles Times summed it up: "U.S.' Prewar Visions Get Further Out of Focus."

But, as is often the case, the reality is quite different. In fact, we're in the middle of what looks like a democratic revolution in an area where such a development once seemed unthinkable.

Consider recent events, scattered across the Islamic Mideast:

In October 2003, Afghanistan held the first elections in its history.

Three weeks ago, Iraq held an election of its own. And now even Saddam Hussein's terrorist-supporting Sunni followers, who first rejected any form of democracy, are talking about joining in.

In Lebanon, thousands have demonstrated in support of greater democracy and the removal of Syria's 15,000 troops.

Pro-democracy demonstrations have also hit Egypt — home of some of the most radically undemocratic Muslim fundamentalists in the region.

Saudi Arabia recently held local elections another first. And in a radical step for the fundamentalist kingdom, it may let women vote in the next round.

Finally, in the West Bank and Gaza, Palestinians elected a government and local mayors, after the death of Yasser Arafat.

Why is this happening? And why now?

Here's a quote, culled from Washington Post columnist David Ignatius on Wednesday. The speaker is Walid Jumblatt, head of Lebanon's Druze Muslim community — and hardly a friend of the U.S.:

"It's strange for me to say it, but this process of change has started because of the American invasion of Iraq. I was cynical about Iraq. But when I saw the Iraqi people voting three weeks ago, 8 million of them, it was the start of a new Arab world."

He goes on: "The Syrian people, the Egyptian people, all say that something is changing. The Berlin Wall has fallen. We can see it."

Yes, the Mideast has been bitten by the democracy bug. And whom do we have to thank for this extraordinary turn of events? That unsubtle, unnuanced American cowboy, George W. Bush.

From 2001 through 2004, Bush was bashed relentlessly by the European elite, global big media and American left for his naive, neoconservative focus on pushing democracy on the Mideast. Didn't he know those people weren't capable of democracy?

Despite his lack of European polish and intellectual credentials, Bush understood that the hunger for freedom is universal. No one wants to be the slave of another. Fortunately, Bush didn't listen to the critics. He moved boldly to seize history.

No, democracy isn't always perfect. As is often noted, Hitler came to power in a legitimate election. And countries that have lived for centuries under cruel, despotic regimes don't become Swedish-style toy box democracies overnight, perfectly attuned to human rights and the rule of law.

Yes, there will be setbacks, and terrorism won't end instantly. But democratic change must start somewhere. And doesn't Jumblatt's phrase — "a new Arab world" — have a nice sound to it?